Washington, DC - Surprisingly, Toronto and this city have much in common. Both have muddy, dirty rivers, ours being the Don and theirs the Potomac. Each has its own large phallic symbol looking down benignly over the city: the CN Tower and the Washington Monument. Ours is bigger (not that it matters, I'm told).
They also have an equally large mammary symbol close by: the Skydome and the Capitol Building. I don't know which is fuller, but ours is mound-shaped while theirs is pointy.
But Washington has something we don't have: a museum dedicated to indigenous people. On September 21, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian opened with a bang. Thousands and thousands of people from several dozen nations/tribes and assorted aboriginal organizations across Turtle Island participated in the grand entry, a parade-like procession that took at least two hours to make its way to the stage.
The museum building itself had several Canadian connections. Its original design was by world-renowned Metis architect Douglas Cardinal. The building's distinctive rounded, smooth surface will remind anybody of the Cardinal-designed Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.
Cardinal and the Smithsonian parted ways just before construction. Another architectural firm was hired to complete the work based on his design. But there's still bad blood between the two parties, and he was not there to bask in the glory.
A week or so before the opening, e-mails were flying about a possible boycott of the museum opening for the disrespect shown to Cardinal. Calls for letters of protest were heard but apparently not heeded. It was reminiscent of a similar call about the Mohegan Sun Casino on the Mohegan Reservation in Connecticut. Several native groups tried to organize a boycott of last year's performance by Tim McGraw.
Evidently, some were still annoyed at a song he released a good number of years ago titled Indian Outlaw. It goes something like, "You can find me in my wigwam / I'll be beatin' on my tom-tom / Pull out the pipe and smoke you some / Hey and pass it around / I'm an Indian outlaw / Half Cherokee and Chocktaw." I'm told, however, that the show was pretty packed.
Then there was the leaflet handed out by the Minneapolis American Indian Movement. AIMsters dissed the museum for failing to display the "sordid and tragic history of America's holocaust against Native nations' and suggested renaming it the National Holocaust Museum.
It's no secret that native people have a strained relationship with museums. They're sometimes perceived as mortuaries for our ancestors, and there was some concern about how this particular one would operate. But it seems the mandate here is quite different. Most of the curators are native, and the focus seems to be on today's First Nations, not 100-year-old totem poles and boxes of bones.
Perhaps the best happening occurs in a place where only a precious few get to watch. An ancient, or some would say contemporary, event known as a 49er spontaneously erupts one evening in a conference room. You can't have a powwow without a 49er, an outpouring of traditional song and dance, after the sun goes down. And it seems you can't have a museum opening without one either. At this one, an Iroquois water drum group sings, followed by other folks from the Four Directions. It's the kind of magic you can't plan for.
On my final day in Washington, I'm invited to the Canadian Embassy for a wine and cheese party celebrating the opening of a native art show. But more than rosé and dairy products get served up here - we're offered lovely "Canadian" munchies of caribou and musk ox tenderloin. I'm a loyal Canadian, but I don't recall coming across these at my local Loblaws.
At the meet-and-mingle, I hear a "Canadian" joke told by an American: A seal pup walks into a bar. He looks at the drink menu trying to decide. The bartender gets a little frustrated and says to the seal pup, "Hey, what do you want to drink?" The seal pup puts the drink menu down and says, "Anything but a Canadian Club."
As the night draws to a close and we're all leaving the embassy, I notice a group of people hanging around the front of the building in front of a circular concrete porch-like structure that has a unique echoing effect. One of the noted native artists being honoured, Ahmoo Angeconeb, takes out his hand drum and begins to sing. One by one, two dozen or more start to dance around him, holding hands, feet moving side by side, bellies stuffed with blueberry bannock and musk ox tenderloin. Eventually, the song ends, as all songs must, and we all go home with the warm fuzzies.